No One Is Talking About The Environmental Impacts of The Baby Formula Industry

12 September 2018

By Carly Cassella Science Alert article published 17th July 2018. 

Infant formula is an amazing product that's helped millions of babies and parents - it offers a much-needed substitute for breastmilk when women or babies can't breastfeed or choose not to. At the end of the day, having a baby that is fed is unquestionably best, regardless of the means of nourishment.

But when formula isn't needed - particularly once babies become toddlers - or when choosing which brand to select, there's one thing parents often don't get enough information on: the environmental impact of formula.

Formula production and consumption has major environmental impacts, but despite several attempts from experts and agencies to start the conversation, awareness and research on the topic is abysmal.

Last week, in a damning New York Times report, it was revealed that the US government tried to block a World Health Assembly resolution that would encourage breastfeeding and limit the misleading marketing of formula milk.

Health experts were understandably outraged, and in the days following the report there was a stream of conversation about why policies that support breastfeeding are crucial to public health.

At this point, the health benefits of breast milk have been widely publicized, but breastfeeding is not simply about global health. It's also about sustainability. Even still, breastfeeding is rarely seen as an environmental issue.

Alison Stuebe, a maternal-fetal medicine physician and president-elect of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, believes that the environmental implications of the formula industry have not yet come to the fore.

"I'm really pleased that this is getting publicity, because every single day, every time a baby goes to breast, a $70 billion industry loses a sale. A lot of people don't appreciate that  there is a corporate interest here," Stuebe told Science AF.

At the same time, however, Stuebe believes the current conversation is missing a key ingredient.

"When we think about it, if all the babies on Earth were formula fed, what would that do to our environment? I think a lot of people don't think about that. That's a piece that sometimes falls through the cracks," she said.

Breastfeeding is remarkably green. In fact, breast milk has been called the most environmentally-friendly food available. It produces zero waste, zero greenhouse gases and has a zero water footprint.

Now consider the alternative: formula milk requires farming, storage, pasturization, drying, cooling, packaging and shipping. Experts say that every kilogram of powdered infant milk requires roughly 4,000 liters of water.

Not to mention the fact that powdered milk comes from cows, and the cattle industry is the second largest contributor to methane emissions - a heat trapping gas around 30 times more potent than CO2.

You can read the article in full here